Saturday, January 31, 2009

how to piss away a critique

Well, it didn't take long. I dropped out of Authonomy today because it was driving me crazy. If I could envision a level of hell specifically designed to torture writers, Authonomy would be it. You are forced to read other people's bad fiction, but you're not allowed to critique it honestly or effectively--for one thing you can't copy & paste text from their story to do line edits, and for another thing everybody is too busy circle-jerking each other to actually read or critique.

The gimmick of the site is that Authonomy takes the top five peer-ranked novels and provides a review by one of their professional editors. Mostly these reviews involve describing why the thing isn't good enough to publish. So you get the torture of watching your novel climb into the single digits, only to be slapped down at the top.

Don't get me wrong, here--I'm on the side of the editors. It's not as if they WANT to destroy every writer whose hopes and aspirations waft across their desks, but having seen more than enough amateur fiction myself, I can't blame the editors for getting a bit terse. In fact I wonder why the hell they agreed to this experiment in the first place--transparency? To show all the writers out there how bad the slush really is? (And the stuff on Authonomy is actually amoung the better efforts out there. I didn't see anything on the site that was actually incomprehensible, or suggestive of mental deficiency.)

The problem with the transparency plan is, no writer believes that *her* work is as mediocre as the stuff she's reviewing. Every writer up there undoubtedly believes that *her* book is the one that will break the mold, despite seeing the top five get shot down week after week after week. And after weeks of artificial buildup, to be brought back to cold hard reality--as I said, a special hell just for writers.


Last week, one of the top five was a SF thing written by a woman named Patty. Patty is popular on the site--posted to all the forums, read and promoted like a madwoman; had a thousand friends. She played by the rules. I didn't read her book, but I read the editor's remarks, which Patty was brave enough to make public. They told her, in part:

"[your novel's] take on science fiction is naïve and simplistic ... reads like a book from the 1960s or earlier."

"SF has moved on from cheesy concepts [such as] “Nations of Earth”, “spacefarer’s dialect” and the “Union of Galactic Entities”. Moreover, the political descriptions do not convince. I was reminded of old thrillers like The Man from UNCLE, and found it confusing when reading them with an informed, up-to-date world view. [...] the author, although setting the book in the future, has done little to update the world from our own times – the settings are straight from central casting."

"...there is nothing wrong at all with referencing the styles of older pulp novels – [which] at their best can have a tremendous joi de vivre and embrace some truly mind-boggling concepts. But I do not believe that the intention here was to deliberately pastiche that sort of science fiction to make a particular point or create a specific effect. If that was the case, it’s not worked."

"falls far short in bringing anything new or original to science fiction."

Of course, Patty promptly went to the forums, and her blog, and posted a rebuttal--and what did she seize on? The last line--"does not bring anything new or original to science fiction." Her bitter rant was familiar to me--I'll paraphrase:

"How can I write anything new when all the new stuff is about quantum physics and nanotechnology? How could any non-scientist keep up with that? And why would I want to write about bleeding-edge tech anyway? I don't want to read all that technoporn! I want to read about people! Star Trek and Star Wars are still popular despite being outdated and cheesy!"

So many wrong notions, so little time. When somebody tells you that your scientific and political tropes are out of date, that means you need to do research, pure and simple. Science fiction is probably more demanding than any other genre in terms of research. You need to know what has been done before, what is being done now, and what will probably be done tomorrow. If you're going to write far-future space opera you need to be thoroughly versed in contemporary astronomy, physics, space exploration and sociological theory, just as a start. Even if you don't intend to USE that research in your book, you need to know what's happening in those disciplines and accommodate it, because otherwise the fans will nail you as a poseur in a heartbeat. There is nothing SF fans love better than to tell you you're wrong.

But beyond that--surely you've heard this one--SF is a literature of IDEAS. The trappings of space ships and ray guns are not enough; you have to provide some new way of looking at the human condition, via an extrapolation of its inventions (whether mechanical, biological, sociological, artistic, etc.).


Lemme tell you a quick story: When I was twenty-six I joined the writer's group I am still a part of. Rob Chilson was nice enough to read my space opera novel, the one I'd been working on since high school. He said pretty much the same things as the editor told Patty: Decent writing, but the technology and the sociopolitical stuff were cheesy and unsophisticated. He even used the same "central casting" reference--it's a familiar phrase among SF editors.

I was furious. I was wounded. I was frustrated to think of all the work I'd put into the story and now Rob wanted me to tear it all apart again? Who was he to judge? Clearly he didn't get the point. My story wasn't about politics or technology.... etc., etc.

I said all this to my mother, who read both my book and Rob's review. My mother, who has never been one to apply superficial sympathy, said matter-of-factly, "Actually Holly, this is a pretty good critique."

Stopped me dead in my tracks. Made me realize how childish I was being. Made me stop and look at the thing with a cold, clinical eye, and envision how the book might be different--and stronger--if I took Rob's suggestions seriously.

I never did rewrite the book. Oh, I fiddled with it for a couple more years, in-between working on other things. But once I separated myself emotionally from the words on the page, I realized that the problem with the book was in its conception: it wasn't built on a solid foundation. It was, to exhaust the metaphor, merely cardboard scenery on a semi-lighted stage. And I realized that to make the book work I'd have to start from scratch, re-conceptualize it. I might keep the characters and their basic conflicts, but it would be a different book when I was done. And I realized I just didn't care that much about the story anymore--I'd moved on to new loves who were less maintenance.

My husband says it's far less work to build a house from scratch than to gut an older house and rebuilt it from the inside; the same is true for prom dresses and novels. I may, someday, rewrite Escaping Ariston, but it will probably have a different title and it will undoubtedly be about something very different than I was writing about at twenty-five.


I mention Patty's review and rebuttal in the larger point of demonstrating how to piss away a good critique. Yeah, your ego is going to smart when you read the bad news, but push it aside. Really *read* the damn thing and take it to heart. Everything that a reviewer can say about your story is a little bit true, no matter how off-base it may seem--from their point of view it is true. And their point of view is valuable insomuch as they are a potential reader that wants to be pleased by your story. Accomodating their desires doesn't make you a whore, it makes you a good lover.

I made a list of responses a writer tends to feel (or say) in response to a critiquer who has panned their story. If you find yourself thinking any of these, banish the thought from your mind: they are obstacles your ego throws up to prevent you from learning. And for Pete's sake don't actually *say* any of these things to the person who burnt a few hours of his life to read and comment on your story.

"You didn't get my story because this isn't the kind of thing you usually read/write/publish/edit."

Unlikely. Most critiquers will tell you right up front if your work isn't the kind of genre they normally enjoy, but it's largely irrelevant. Outside of certain genre tropes and conventions, good writing is good writing. Confusion of speaker tags, inconsistencies in pacing, tedious prose--these are universal.

Furthermore, most readers--and all editors-- read a wide variety of stuff. Even if a genre is not their favorite, they have a certain sense of how that genre should read. In fact a reader who is inexperienced in your genre is likely to be *more* lenient with your mistakes than someone who really knows what to look for--as witness the SF example above.

"Who cares about all that grammar and punctuation stuff? It's the true *soul* of a story that matters. Besides, that stuff is for the editors to clean up."

Wrong. In the first place, bad mechanics will discourage most readers from ever discovering the true soul of your story. Which gift would you rather unwrap, the plain brown paper sack sealed with duct tape and smeared in offal, or the pretty shiny gift bag with the bow on top? Presentation counts, doubly so because publishing houses can no longer afford to pay for extensive editing and copyediting services. They want manuscripts that are in near-publishable condition.

"Well, you did the same thing in *your* story!" or "That famous author did the same thing in *his* story!"
That famous author may have used the same technique as you, but he did it skillfully. You didn't. Also, to a lower level of skill two techniques may *look* the same but really aren't. For instance, there is a difference between one character making a descriptive statement about another, and the author inserting "tellisms" to describe his viewpoint character.

"Well, you're not so great a writer, either/You're an editor, what was the last thing you wrote?"

In the first place, the work of the critiquer is not at issue. We are talking about *your* work. Secondly, one does not have to be a renowned artist in order to be a master craftman. It can help sometimes, but it's not a prerequisite. What counts is skill acquisition. It's the difference between talent and hard work.

There are some very fine teachers and editors out there who are not the greatest writers. They're not trying to be; that's why they are teachers and editors. They know that the writers they are looking to publish are far more gifted than they will ever be. It takes a great deal of knowledge and experience--and humility-- to recognize where one is in terms of skill. People with the least skill/knowledge/experience invariably overrate their own abilities.

"What right do you have to say nasty things about my story?"

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you ASKED for an opinion. Don't EVER slap back at a reviewer or editor who gave you an honest answer. In fact, don't respond to critiques at all, except to ask a question to clarify something. Unless the critique was personally abusive, always thank the reviewer for their time. Leave it at that.

"Well, that's only your opinion."

Correct. However: your goal as a writer is to win as many readers as possible. That means you should accommodate as many weird little quirks and prejudices as possible, within the parameters of your genre and ideal audience. Clarify every point of confusion, no matter how dumb. If one person says it and another one disagrees, try to find a compromise. Take into consideration all the opinions you can get. They are valuable. Don't discard them.

"Being so blunt is just rude!"

Not deliberately, it isn't. A blunt critique is a heartfelt critique. Sometimes reviewers see the same mistakes over and over again, or they get frustrated because a work is *so close* except for that one glaring shortcoming. If somebody hauls back and slaps you in the face, swallow your pride and consider it a wake-up call.

"Well, you're only saying that because you're jealous/mean/ greedy/ignorent/etc."

Whatever you do, don't read psychological subtexts into the reviewer's words. They are probably not tearing you down to build up their own egos. They are certainly not tearing you down to promote their own work (how would that serve, anyway?). Peer critiquers will review your stuff either because they are hoping for reciprocation, or because they love writing and reading and they understand that critting somebody else's stuff is the best way for them to learn to be better writers. Professional editors, on the other hand, genuinely want to find good stuff. If they tell you you suck, it's because they want you to improve. Even if it seems they are being brutal, it's to crack open the notorious writer's ego and allow a little reality in. You will never improve if all you hear is praise.

Well, 500 of my closest friends think this is a great book and said they would read it!

Um... who are these people? Are any of them writers or editors? Are any of them good writers or editors? Do you secretly think you are a better writer than they are? If so, why would you trust their judgment?

Did they pay for the priviledge of reading your book? Did they come looking for your book? Or did they only read it because it was handed out for free? People will consume honey-covered pig shit if it's handed out for free. Try asking those 500 people if they'll contribute $10 to help you self-publish the thing.

"Well, there may be some truth to what you say but I consider this story finished and I won't be changing it."

Might as well add "nyah, nyah, nyah," to the end of that--it's about as mature.

So what do you say to a negative critique?

"Thank you for your time."


AJ Milne said...

What right do you have to say nasty things about my story?

Please tell me no one has actually written this in respon...

No. Okay. Actually, now that I think about it, I guess I don't want to know.

Anyway... proposed response for next time: 'You are correct. I have no right. I do this in blatant disregard of explicit and specific precedents in international law which absolutely forbid saying anything critical about anyone else's writing. But I'm going to do it anyway because (a) it amuses me, and (b) because You Can't Stop Me! Bwuhahahaha...'

draxes said...

I agree. Being a fan of SF in general, all I can say is that there is a reason that geosynchronous orbit was originally called Clark Orbit, and that the Japanese are now trying to build a an elevator to space.
Besides, how hard is is to visit once in a while?

Holly said...

AJ: Yes. Yes, they have. To me. On Authonomy, and other places. In fact, in my writing career I have had approximately an equal number of "best crit I ever had!!" thank-you's and "Die bitch die!!" piss-offs.

I think Authonomy made things unnecessarily hard on themselves--and on the writers--by being unclear about their intent. They set up the site like some American Idol kind of thing--as if the top one or two contestants are actually going to win a prize. That is not, in fact the case, but I don't think most of the users really believe it.

Although I promised myself I would just post my book and not participate in any of the community crap, I couldn't help myself. I was logging in twelve times a day, just to check my ranking and messages. It was incredibly pointless. Besides, I my book is a Western and Harper Collins is a British publisher--so what did that leave me? Circle-jerking for the popularity vote, like everyone else. Waste of everybody's time.

Anonymous said...

Hmm!!! I had hoped to reread "Sikeston" and "Parlor Games" and post some kind words at Authonomous, but no such luck.

I have some insight into your frustration. I let my subscriptions to the SF magazines expire because the issues were piling up and there was so much unreadable drek in them. Those stories actually got past the editors. I can't even imagine what kind of sludge they rejected.

You definitely make some good points in this entry. Yeah, my feelings were hurt by the criticisms I found in my rejection slips, but upon due reflection, I found the remarks were justifiable.

"Your story reads like something from the 1960's or earlier." Yup, that criticism could could have been leveled at "Strange Talent," a story I submitted in 1979. It was first written in 1959 and was inspired by the Hogben tales that Henry Kuttner wrote in the 1940's. The same remark could be directed at "Day of Reckoning," which I put on paper in 1972. It has never been rendered into submittable form, and probably won't be in the foreseeable future.
Its protagonist is just too unbelievable.

For the time being, I shall stick to reading science fiction and fantasy and not write it. I shall spare the weary eyeballs of many a weary editor.

Holly said...

These days I look on the published stuff with a kinder eye--there is a slight movement away from "literary" writing and back toward pulp, at least in the short fiction mags.

I'm still a little disturbed by the inability to tell a story, though--not only in fiction, but in movies. I can't tell you how many movies I'd seen, or heard about, where the critics and my friends say, "falls apart at the end." Depressing. I think writers are forgetting how, or think they're being "ambiguous" or something. No, sorry, an ambiguous ending is still a satisfactory ending, even if it leaves you uncomfortable. Mostly I just see stories petering out to a halt, rather than ending.

TV is better, at least on the best shows. I watched the third season of Dexter recently and I continue to be impressed at how the writers create tension for the main characters and manage to wrap up the plotlines neatly.